Saturday , December 9 2023

Luck, game knowledge, and body language: the art of photographing chess

With barely a trace of emotion on their faces, two people were hunched over a black-and-white checkered board contemplating their next moves, their opponent’s potential counter, and their own potential counter.

The fact that it is a sport that does not appear to be particularly dynamic or vibrant at first makes it more difficult than most sports photography to capture its drama and excitement.

Leading chess photographer Maria Emelianova is tasked with documenting the sport’s highs and lows around the world.

Emelianova has mastered the art of capturing the tiniest hint of emotion or tension on the faces of the sport’s stars over the course of her more than ten years of experience.

However, despite her years of experience, she finds it difficult to articulate the profession’s difficulty.

When asked to describe the art of chess photography, Emelianova told CNN Sport, “That’s always a very difficult question.”

Through the lens of the camera, it exposes sports’ extreme outliers to a broader audience. So, people who don’t know much about chess or its players can kind of get close to the game and feel like they’re right next to it.

“In any case, I suppose on the off chance that I knew the solution to this totally, I would presumably have addressed (it).”


Emelianova started playing when she was six years old, competing against her grandfather until she joined a club to practice against her peers. Emelianova was raised in Russia.

In 2010, she became a woman FIDE master, the third-highest ranking reserved for women and given to players with a classical rating of at least 2,100.

Before ceasing to compete, she went on to become a professional chess player. She did, however, make a brief comeback in December 2020 at the British Online Championship.

In February of 2020, Emelianova made the decision to switch her allegiances to the English chess federation. She cited the bond she had developed with the organization through years of competition in the UK and the friends she had made on the team as the reasons for the change. Additionally, she strongly opposes Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Her Elo score peaked in 2004 at 2,144. The chess player’s strength in relation to their opponents is measured by the Elo rating system. To put things into perspective, Carlsen holds the record for the highest Elo rating ever achieved by a human player—2,882—in 2014.

Her mother, according to Emelianova, had a passing interest in photography.
Emelianova elaborated, “My mother was doing some photography stuff when she was younger in university, but it was analog photography.” However, analog photos fascinated me greatly.

Simple photography is the most common way of utilizing cameras stacked with film and handling the photographs in a research facility subsequently utilizing synthetic substances.

Emelianova went on: She had saved slides from her student trips, which I would find and really want to look through because there was no Pinterest, Flickr, or anything like that at the time.

Before the 2010 39th Chess Olympiad in Khanty-Mansiysk, Russia, Emelianova’s life changed.

She had intended to attend as a supporter and to catch up with friends. She was working as a journalist and translator for a magazine in Moscow at the time, for which she occasionally took photographs.

She was asked at a press conference a few days before the Chess Olympiad if she wanted to take some pictures of the tournament. Emelianova accepted despite having limited equipment and experience.

According to Emelianova, she had already purchased a train ticket, but a private plane whisked her to the event. After that, her friend let her borrow some of his expensive camera gear.

“At that point in time, I was thinking, ‘ This cannot be an accident, then. She stated, “There is something kind of like destiny to it, having this happen.”

I therefore took numerous photos. I published them online, just on Instagram, with no idea of what I was doing. Magazines asked for photos, and I sold enough to get my own camera.

Since then, Emelianova has made it her goal to photograph every major chess tournament.

The skill

There is more to chess photography than simply positioning yourself and taking pictures. Emelianova began by explaining that players might be disturbed by the louder shutter sound when a photo was taken because cheaper equipment was used.

She stated, “I was always trying to make sure that the moment in the game was either not as critical and I could take a photo where the player can hear me but won’t be too distracted,” or “I would just try to time it with the move being made.”

“Since they are already making the move or I know that the position on the board is already simplified,” she said. “Obviously, playing chess myself helped to see those moments and see that this moment… the emotions are still there.”

Emelianova moved closer to the action once she was able to afford better, quieter equipment.
She knows where and when to take her shots thanks to the access she has at matches (she admits that organizers have had to convince her not to interfere with ongoing games) and her relationship with players.

The players’ trust in me to not cross the line is, in my opinion, the most significant factor. Additionally, she stated, “I also, myself, have to fight with myself at times like one part is a journalist and another is a chess player.”

“The journalist responds, “‘ The player replied, “You need to come closer and get this moment.” You simply cannot accomplish that. Being a chess player also sometimes prevents me from enjoying better times.

Emelianova, who has been working as an in-house photographer at the leading chess website since 2018, says she has a number of different cues she is looking for when she approaches a game to get the best shots.

She claims that her experience as a former professional player enables her to determine, based on the game’s flow or the setting, whether she should have a camera ready.

Emelianova claims that she is constantly observing the players’ body language outside of the game environment.

Some of the players really don’t show much. She stated, “But I already know enough to even, like, catch a really, really subtle head shake, or sitting like too straight, or posing as very relaxed.”

“I think the portraits, especially those with emotions, are my favorite part. They cannot be taken out of context; they must be present at some point. However, I believe that the majority of the time, the emotions, reactions, and moments of the players are what make or break a tournament, game, or match.

She also gets ready with the help of her personal knowledge of the players. I can often be there before anything even happens, in addition to knowing the personalities of the players and kind of knowing what to expect from each one depending on the situation,” Emelianova stated.

However, despite all of her preparation and prior knowledge, she admits that luck plays a significant role in her photography.

Even though she knows what she wants, it doesn’t make the job any easier. She particularly recalls the abilities she acquired in a photojournalism class at Moscow State University, which aided in her craft-fine-tuning.
She also claims that her current position as a chess streamer has allowed her to approach and discuss her work in an open setting, which has increased her appreciation for chess photography.

Emelianova stated, “The fact that it is difficult to find something that stands out is a challenge enough to search for it, and, when you find it, it is like really redeeming and almost impossible to repeat,” adding that her job “ignites a sparkle” in her.

“Of course, there are times when it’s hard for me to find something that makes me say, Wow, after all these years! Yet, I will in any case continue to look since, when I truly do find [it], particularly when a player scarcely shows anything, they’re totally deadpan, that is significant.

“I believe that telling a story is important. So, the most important thing is when someone who is not familiar with chess can read the story from the photos, not necessarily from the text.

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